In popular cinema the hit man, or assassin, is often a noble character when he is the protagonist (and it is usually a he) who may consort with shady organisations and murder people for a living, but he is mainly killing bad guys that nobody will miss. Such characters often end up putting their life and career on the line when they chooses to protect their target due to a crisis of conscience, recognising that the target is not a bad guy, falling in love with the target or all of the above. The American asserts very early on in a key moment that it is not going to be another romanticised version of the hit man narrative. In this film the elite assassin, who goes by the names Jack and Edward (George Clooney), is not a loveable killer but a chillingly deadly and detached professional with a machine-like precision in everything he does.
The American is the second film directed by Dutch-born music photographer Anton Corbijn, who originally made his name defining the look of seminal bands Joy Division, U2 and Depeche Mode through his photographs. Corbijn’s first film Control, a biopic about Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis, displayed a distinctive European influence with the film feeling like something Swedish director Ingmar Bergman would have made if he were to have made an English kitchen-sink drama. In The American, which is primarily set in a small Italian village, the softly filtered light, slow burn pacing and meticulous staging of each scene evokes 1960s and 1970s European hit man/assassin classics such as Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le samouraï and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist.
The American is also comparable to Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control, another recent hit man film with strong European sensibilities. The American is a far more narrative driven film but to an extent it shares with The Limits of Control a focus on the process, waiting and build-up rather than being a guns blazing action film. Both films also have a cool detached sensibility and in The American the frequent use of long shots and medium-long shots makes the characters feel somewhat lost in the environment they are occupying. However, The American contrasts this detachment with its subjective use of sound and editing where the film will cut to what Jack notices or emphasise a dramatic noise to give the audience a sense of the tense, suspicious and always on-guard view of the world that Jack experiences.
While films usually use subjective style to help the audience emphasis with the character by seeing the world through their eyes, in The American it is used to make the audience extremely concerned with how Jack will react to a situation involving a secondary character that we’ve come to care about. We know what Jack is capable of and how little humanity he possesses (although his obsession with butterflies suggests a repressed longing for some sort of emotional rebirth) so key moments in the film, such as when he is contemplating if murdering an innocent person is a good strategic move, are tense and unpredictable.
George Clooney is not a stranger to dramatic acting but he is more commonly known for his charming, cheeky and sometimes goofy leading-man persona. Like Henry Fonda playing the villain in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, a pivotal scene of which we see being shown on television in The American, the against-type casting makes the character that little more chilling and untrustworthy since they are so far removed from how we normally regard them. And yet, Clooney still gradually endears Jack to us and makes us care about him despite what it is that he does. This also has a lot to do with Corbijn direction and the script (adapted from Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman), which allow enough hints of humanity to come through the surface of Jack’s icy exterior without the film ever feeling trite. In particular, Jack’s relationship with a priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), and a prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido), are beautifully developed and sincere.
The American is intelligent and well-crafted cinema that transcends its generic limitations through Corbijn’s command of film style. Corbijn’s background as a photographer has given him a mastery of how to frame and light every moment to tell a story visually in the most compelling way possible. With Control and now The American Corbijn has not only proven his success in making the transition into feature films but asserted himself as one of the most talented directors working today.